Album Review: Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure

[Universal/Fiction; 2021]

Rebecca Lucy Taylor deals in feelings. As Self Esteem, she latches onto an emotion – a rumbling in the pit of her stomach, a lingering sense of discomfort, a hopeful proclamation of self-love – and unleashes it like a ringleader cracking a whip: deliberately, forcefully, and loud as fucking hell. Taylor has little time for middling sentiments or even metaphors; her music is direct and to the point, and it has never been blunter and more unabashed than it is on her new album Prioritise Pleasure.

Taylor has a long history of working in the music industry, most notably gaining notoriety and experience as one half of Slow Club. The duo disbanded in 2017, but by that time Taylor had already moved onto new things, writing her own songs in private and sending them to musician friend Jamie T for feedback. By the time Self Esteem’s debut album Compliments Please was unleashed to the world in 2019 it felt like a huge sigh of relief, Taylor working far away from the amicable indie rock sound of her former gig and instead dealing in more abstract, carnal, and bombastic approaches to music.

If Compliments Please stumbled in any way it was that Taylor still sounded like she was finding her voice at points. On her follow-up that issue is gone completely; here Taylor sounds entirely in control of her surroundings, her voice and each single word she uses.

She’s brazenly direct, and across Prioritise Pleasure she gives absolutely zero fucks about conforming to expectations. She calls out the double standards of the patriarchy on “Hobbies 2” which tries to shame her for enjoying sex: “I’m only human – what are you?,” she sings pointedly. On “How Can I Help You” she turns a put down (“I don’t know shit”) into a sardonic call to arms. With it’s Yeezus-inspired snapping beat, the track bursts into a sense of alarm, like the repeated phrase is setting off warning bells and waving red flags in her face.

And Taylor knows how to make a beat work. Indeed it’s what comes first when making her music: “I was a drummer before I was a singer so it’s about the beat first,” she explained back in 2019, and here it still sounds like the same approach is being used. The title track utilizes a thumping club beat between screeches of guitar feedback and gospel-backed affirmations of self-love. On “Still Reigning” and “It’s Been A While” she delves into R&B and even dubstep styles, while the stark and devastating opening track “I’m Fine” uses metallic industrial creaks against a low, bass-y burbling grind.

Second to the beats are the constant sweeps of strings (“I do love strings,” Taylor has said clearly in interviews), which heighten the rise in biting ferocity or drive home the softer edges of the album (“John Elton”, “The 345”, “Just Kids”).

However, what rides at the top and takes your attention pretty much all the time is Taylor herself. Her words are honest and palpable, but also unflinchingly direct; fed up of being told to be less herself and stop being too much, she takes on any and all detractors square in the face. She lets go of ex partners who want to cling on (“I leave you unread / I don’t care how you feel about it”), reclaims being moody and rejects categorisation (“This has got nothing to do with you”), and allows herself to feel vulnerable and make mistakes (“I ignored the warnings / but from that I’m learning”). Prioritise Pleasure is such an impacting album precisely because it wields that power of being too much – of Taylor being entirely herself.

Prioritise Pleasure deals in mantras, anthems, and declarations, but at the heart of each song is a lesson learned and story lived through. When you focus on her lyrics entirely you realise just how crushing and exhausting life is as a female, but also how she can still snap a neck with a simple blithe remark (“I’ve got more on my mind / than you have in your lifetime”). Each track here has a rewarding line in it waiting to knock you with its power.

The album can feel a touch front loaded and maybe a smidgen too long, but that is no doubt only because of the contrast of the blunter first half against the more vulnerable and hopeful B-side. “The 345” in particular feels like an anthem of encouragement to young women; “We made it this far / might as well carry on / don’t have to stick to a plan / just living.”

At the centre of it all is “I Do This All The Time”, half Baz Luhrmann tribute and half Jenny Hval-like semi-spoken word manifesto, it finds Taylor taking us through her thought processes on social pressures, guilt, and debasing expectations put upon her throughout her life. It’s equal parts devastating as it uplifting, swirling together all the strands of the album’s stories into something that is not only the best track on the album, but probably one of the best tracks of the year. In the middle of the song she utters the album’s title clearly and with an insistent directness, which is perhaps the simplest and easiest to remember piece of takeaway advice here: prioritise pleasure. The first step is surely listening to Self Esteem repeatedly.